At long last, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has spoken out about the killing of at least 264 people in Nicaragua’s anti-government protests over the past three months. But his statement, in addition to being long overdue, is pitiful.
In a statement issued by a spokesperson, Guterres said that he is “deeply concerned” about “the continuing and intensifying violence in Nicaragua,” as well as by the July 9 attack against that country’s mediators from the Catholic Church. He also called on “all parties” to refrain from using violence.
But, shamefully, he didn’t say that the overwhelming majority of the killings were carried out by President Daniel Ortega’s regime.
All major human-rights organization agree that the bulk of the violence comes from one side — Ortega’s police and the paramilitary goons it protects. The Organization of American States’ Inter-American Human Rights Commission puts the number of dead since April 18 at 264, while Nicaragua’s Pro-Human Rights Association puts the figure at 309 people and thousands of wounded.
When I asked Paulo Abrao, head of the OAS Human Rights Commission, how many deaths were caused by pro-government forces, he said that it’s more than 90 percent of the total.
“There are some police and pro-government people among the dead, but it’s a small percentage. At the most, it’s 15 or 16 people,” he said.
Ortega, a leftist populist who is borrowing a page from Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, has co-opted all of his country’s independent institutions, has been in power since 2007. He was last re-elected in a questionable election in 2016.
Ortega and his powerful wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, claim that the protests are being carried out by “coup-plotters” and “terrorists.”
But the truth is that what started in April as a student protest has quickly evolved into a national uprising. Students, labour unions, professionals and the country’s largest business organizations have taken to the streets to protest what has become a bloody dictatorship.
Juan Sebastian Chamorro, head of Nicaragua’s FUNIDES private-sector think tank, told me that, “Ortega is trying to make the world believe that the violence is coming from both sides. But, in fact, there’s is a generalized peaceful rebellion against 11 years of authoritarian rule.”
The barricades on the streets have been erected by students to protect themselves from Ortega’s paramilitary thugs, he said.
In recent days, Ortega’s goons — their faces covered with black hoods — have started showing up at private homes and kidnapping students suspected of having participated in the protests. Many of these young people are still unaccounted for, he added.
Which brings me back to Guterres’ statement calling on “all parties” to cease the violence. How can the U.N. chief be so blind to what’s going on? How can he play so blatantly into Ortega’s hands by suggesting that both sides are responsible for the bloodshed?
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s Americas director, calls Guterres’ statement “shameful.”
“Ortega is the supreme chief of the Nicaraguan police, and de facto police chief Francisco Diaz is a close relative of his,” Vivanco told me. “Instead of making sure that the police don’t execute people, Ortega is defending the police, and blaming the opposition.”
It’s high time for the United Nations to look into Nicaragua’s bloodbath. Considering that the country’s population is only 6 million, it’s a bigger human-rights crisis than many others that are drawing headlines worldwide.
Consider: The at least 264 deaths in Nicaragua’s political violence over the past few weeks are more than the estimated 150 deaths in Venezuela’s bloody protests in all of last year — and more than the estimated 130 deaths reported in the recent clashes on the Israel-Gaza border.
But while the United Nations General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Human Rights Council have recently issued several condemnations of Israel’s use of force on the Gaza border, they have not issued one single resolution condemning Ortega’s killings in Nicaragua.
That’s why it’s hard not to consider Guterres’ statement a joke. It’s time for the U.N. chief to look at the evidence and put to pressure on Ortega to stop the killings.